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Military reconstruction teams in Afghanistan closing up shop

The U.S. military is ending a massive nation-building experiment in Afghanistan, shutting down teams that have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into roads, schools and administrative buildings in the country’s hinterlands, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.

As part of an effort to improve the reach and reputation of Afghanistan’s central government, the U.S. and its allies set up over two dozen Provincial Reconstruction Teams around the country to dispense development aid and advise local officials. At least five of these have closed in recent months, and most of the remainder will shut down over the next year, the paper reported.

According to the report, the U.S. agreed to end the program in a partnership agreement reached in May with the Afghan government, which sees the program as undercutting local institutions.

Many U.S. and Western officials say they are doubtful that provincial administrations are ready to fill the void.

“No one has a clue how much is being spent in province A or B” by provincial governments, a senior Western official is quoted as saying. “It’s a serious national-security threat to the country.”

The reconstruction teams usually include some 100 troops, led by a military officer, and draw on civilian aid expertise, often with representatives from the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of Agriculture, the paper reported.

In 2010, at the height of the U.S. troops surge, the Nangarhar PRT spent around $24 million on projects in the province through the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, or CERP, a fund given to military commanders to invest in reconstruction projects. The work included $5.5 million for street repair in the provincial capital of Jalalabad, $300,000 for the pediatric wing of a hospital and several high schools that cost around $200,000 each, according to the report. Civilian agencies also channeled money through the PRT.

That CERP money has all but dried up as part of a planned phaseout, according to The Wall Street Journal. The Nangarhar PRT now oversees around half a dozen projects with a total budget of $750,000. Air Force Lt. Col. Grant Hargrove, who commands the PRT overseeing Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan, said the team still has “bulk CERP” available, but the small-scale funds — capped at $5,000 per project — can only pay for a well or a modest irrigation project.

At a conference in Germany last year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the PRTs and district teams “parallel structures” that have “undermined the development of institutions in terms of strength and credibility,” the paper noted.

In the provinces, directors of local ministries turned to the military instead of the central government for project funds, the paper noted.

The U.S. has already closed at least four PRTs in eastern Afghanistan, closing teams most recently in Laghman and Kapisa provinces near Kabul, the paper reported. The U.S. also is winding down the work of smaller district support teams, which provide similar aid to the equivalent of municipal and county governments, the paper said.

The June closure has “badly affected” the local economy, Sarhadi Zwak, a spokesman for the governor of Laghman, told the paper. “There are no more projects,” he said. “When the PRT was here they would implement several projects and create job opportunities for the people.”
 

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